From books to movies, 2012 could be called the year of the Navy SEAL. Since the night of May 2, 2011, when the unit known as SEAL Team 6 found and killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the elite commandos have been celebrated in memoir after memoir, from accounts of life in Team 6 by Howard E. Wasdin and Don Mann to books by "regular" SEALs—Chris Kyle's "American Sniper," Brandon Webb's "The Red Circle" and Marcus Luttrell's "Service" (which I was privileged to have had a hand in). The biggest of all was "No Easy Day" by "Mark Owen," a pseudonym for Matt Bissonnette, a SEAL who participated in the raid. The film "Act of Valor," made with the cooperation of the SEAL command, topped the box office in February. A cable movie, "SEAL Team Six," will air Nov. 4, Mr. Luttrell's first memoir, "Lone Survivor," is in production at Universal, and a big-budget feature about the raid, Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," is scheduled for December.
Yet as Mark Bowden, dean of covert-warfare journalists, discovered while researching his own account of the bin Laden raid, SEAL Team 6 doesn't like to talk. Mr. Bowden's "Black Hawk Down" (1999), about a failed 1993 special-ops raid in Somalia, was deeply rooted in testimony from the shooters and door-kickers. Here Mr. Bowden never got inside the fence. All the attention on the Abbottabad raid led the SEALs to batten the hatches. Mr. Bissonnette's sensational tell-all may have made him famous, but it also made him an outcast from his warrior fraternity.
"The Finish" is, foremost, a political book. The central character is President Barack Obama. Among the subordinate heroes are many special operators of a different kind: speechwriters, handlers and numerous others who wouldn't know a hand grenade from a handshake. Where "Black Hawk Down" was a detailed account of a 15-hour firefight in the streets of Mogadishu, "The Finish" is fixed on Pennsylvania Avenue. Everyone is an actor in a political drama whose chief subject is the president and his conscience.
"It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this mission, not just to America—getting Osama bin Laden would be like closing an open wound—but to Obama's presidency," Mr. Bowden writes late in his narrative. Though he attests that "no one involved with Obama's handling of the bin Laden effort saw the slightest hint that politics shaped his thinking," he writes a few pages later that "there was not a move [Obama] made that did not include a measure of calculation." Including, presumably, the move to cooperate on this book in an election season.
"The Finish" begins with Illinois state senator Barack Obama, then 40, in Chicago, processing the news of the 9/11 attacks. Mostly, his thoughts were for his daughter. "When Sasha emptied her bottle that night in 2001 he lifted her to his shoulder and patted her back gently. The terrible images of the day replayed before him on the screen. He wondered what the future would hold for her and her older sister Malia." Though Mr. Bowden's portrayal of the president is generally sympathetic, he shows a gimlet eye to Obama's early reflex to pacifism: "If [George W.] Bush's response to 9/11 was to start looking for somebody to bomb, Barack Obama sounded ready to launch some kind of global antipoverty campaign," Mr. Bowden writes. "He seemed more interested than provoked."
Yet Mr. Obama was not entirely bloodless, for something deeper stirred in him, too, we are told: "He felt the attacks personally, as a civilized man, as an American, and as a father. He was working his way toward a personal definition of evil." Years later, as president, ordering what some on the left consider an assassination, the president would need to see the act in morally defensible terms—as among those unpleasant things necessary in a "just war."
Mr. Bowden tells us that on May 26, 2009, after a national-security briefing in the White House, Mr. Obama announced to his advisers: "Here's the deal. I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri [al Qaeda's No. 2 at the time] to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority and it needs leadership in the tops of your organizations." Locating bin Laden, Mr. Bowden writes, would require Mr. Obama to "reconstitute human spy networks dismantled in the complacent years after the Cold War, when spying was considered unseemly and unlawful," leaving the reader to imagine teams from the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) beginning to stir, at long last. A reader might easily forget that George W. Bush ever occupied the White House.
As for "43," Mr. Bowden tells us that he pledged to bring in bin Laden "dead or alive" mainly because he was "unable to squelch his Texas swagger." By his second term, convinced that bin Laden was sidelined from planning attacks, Mr. Bush allowed the pursuit to be "usurped" by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's certainly the story coming from the Obama White House. In "The Finish," Mr. Obama is a right and chaste Galahad, the determined steward of America's quest for justice who reorients it toward success.
For many chapters, the book's dramatic narrative obscures the fact that the actual champion of the bin Laden hunt is a collective of mostly nameless hands within the intelligence bureaucracy. These men and women are known by plural pronouns: "They were mostly bookish sorts, but seemed less like academics than like accountants or junior business executives." They gathered data, storing it in vast arrays and using software—and no small amount of intuition—to sift it. One day in late 2010 an analyst identified as John went to the Oval Office with CIA Director Leon Panetta to present the fruit of eight years of work. While pursuing a suspected courier to bin Laden, a man known as Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (real name: Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed), analysts discovered a suspicious home in Abbottabad.
But how good was the intel? The CIA, embarrassed by its errors on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, "had instituted an almost comically elaborate process for weighing certainty. It was like trying to contrive a mathematical formula for good judgment." John was 95% confident that bin Laden lived at the site. President Obama, given a range of arbitrary numbers, pegged the probability at 50%—sufficient to justify a green light. In April, a handpicked team of SEALs started rehearsals at a replica of the compound in the North Carolina outback.
Mr. Bowden's narrative gifts hit their stride once the spy craft comes into focus and the supple intellect of Adm. William H. McRaven, then the JSOC boss, enters the story. Long experience allowed Adm. McRaven to choose instantly from the five options suggested by the CIA. "The layout and location of the compound clearly indicated to him the right way to assault—a small helicopter-borne force." Flying that force 150 miles into Pakistan to deposit two teams into the compound was, Adm. McRaven said, "sporty, but doable." He knew the raid itself would be "old hat," using tactics "built on years of trial and error." As Mr. Bowden writes, "A lot of good men had died perfecting these skills."
"The Finish" is at its best when Mr. Bowden goes deep into mission planning, gameboarding the choice of means of attack—air strike? sniper drone? ground-force raid?—the time-on-target calculations, and the disaster scenarios, in which the SEALs raced the clock, tearing apart the compound to find their hidden terrorist mastermind while an alerted Pakistani army stirred and opposing air forces squared off overhead.
"At the point where the raiding force inside the compound found itself surrounded, [McRaven] suggested they should decline the fight," Mr. Bowden writes. "They would strongpoint the compound, hole up, and wait for Washington to work things out with Islamabad." The admiral doubted diplomatic relations could survive "a trail of dead Pakistanis and downed fighters." But Mr. Obama saw the matter differently. "If he were going to deal with an outraged Pakistan, which he would have to do in almost any event, he would do it without a force of brave Americans in the middle." He was prepared to order them to fight their way out of the country. It is a revelation to learn that the top SEAL wanted to avoid a fight if the worst happened, while the president was game for one.
Yet for all Mr. Bowden's access to White house deliberations, he is unable to weave the type of action narrative that made "Black Hawk Down" such a thriller, or even create a good Washington-based espionage yarn. The ground-level players simply aren't sufficiently developed: not John the CIA analyst; or Guy Filippelli, an Army captain who managed JSOC's intelligence systems; or James Clark, the U.S. Air Force colonel who oversaw the evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles into a system of drones so all-seeing that it is called the "Gorgon Stare." Such people are here and gone before they can emerge as characters.
And readers expecting Mr. Bowden to seat them alongside Mr. Bissonnette and his team as their helo hits a hot landing zone will be let down. The account of the assault covers just 24 pages, and suffers pre-emption by the publication of "No Easy Day." The details differ slightly; Mr. Bowden tells us the SEALs encountered a "single brief spray of gunfire"; Mr. Bissonnette recounts a considerably more intense and accurate fusillade, in which he was hit. In the end, the books are complementary: "No Easy Day" for action, "The Finish" for context.
As "The Finish" is a political book, Mr. Bowden does not shy from evaluating the detention and interrogation policies that produced the intelligence breakthroughs. "The Obama administration has claimed that torture played no role in tracking down bin Laden," he writes at one point, "but here . . . that claim crumbles." "Here" refers to rough interrogations given in 2002 and 2003 to a captured terrorist, Mohammed al-Qahtani, a would-be 9/11 hijacker. Under "pressure," Qahtani gave up the name Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden's courier. "The coercive methods employed . . . would be described as torture by any disinterested person," Mr. Bowden writes. They helped the CIA fix bin Laden's location.
Later, asked why the photos of the terrorist's corpse weren't shown publicly, Mr. Obama said that his administration wasn't going to "spike the football." But John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, couldn't resist a quick dance in the end zone. On the day after the raid, he riffed to the press about an armed bin Laden shooting at the SEALs and using women as shields. For several days thereafter, administration officials tried to untangle the serial confusions and inventions—and ended up, some critics say, disclosing more about the classified mission than the Defense Department wished. "Small falsities began to accrue around the story like splashes of glitter," Mr. Bowden notes.
Vice President Joe Biden, "with his special gift for self-aggrandizing overstatement," claimed that Mr. Obama "made this gutsy call after being roundly advised not to." Mr. Bowden, startlingly, suggests that Mr. Obama's decision to launch the raid was more anguished and difficult than other momentous presidential decisions, including Harry S. Truman's order to drop atomic bombs on civilians in 1945. "Decisions like this had always come with the office, and sometimes had concerned questions of life and death for thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. . . . But how many of these decisions concerned taking a single life?"
The question is less ingenuous than it may first seem. The killing machinery behind the Gorgon Stare is so granular that the morality of its use depends on a close alignment of "necessity" (violence as a last resort), "distinction" (targeting the right people), and "proportionality" (not killing the wrong people), Mr. Bowden writes. Though Vito Corleone worked by a similar ethic, the author makes a moral case for a presidential power of assassination, lawful so long as the chief executive possesses restraint and discernment.
Near the end, Mr. Bowden announces what will have occurred to most readers long before: that while Mr. Obama deserves credit for making the hunt for Osama bin Laden a top priority and authorizing its final act, he wasn't a visionary who reinvented the war against al Qaeda after years of neglect. The breakthrough that led to bin Laden did not derive from a single meeting or a decision to reconstitute dismantled spy networks. The trail never really went cold. It was simply rolled up and stored in disk arrays, waiting for the spy world's data-processing apparatus, used by adept professionals, to do what almost seems inevitable.
Through data analysis—tracing cellphone usage and mapping movements—and a little psychology, the CIA divined the importance of "Ahmed al-Kuwaiti" and linked the name to a person. "The larger truth," Mr. Bowden writes, "is that finding bin Laden was a triumph of bureaucratic intelligence gathering and analysis, an effort that began under President Clinton and improved markedly after 9/11 under President Bush."
This is, of course, true. And it will make any reader question the narrative stylistics practiced in the preceding 247 pages, which often encourage us to see the story as a virtual mano-a-mano between Mr. Obama and Osama bin Laden. Perhaps Mr. Bowden was having a little sport with a president who some feel has grown too fond of the first-person singular pronoun.
As the book closes, Mr. Obama lectures Mark Bowden, of all people, on the useful nature of our "Special Forces" (a misnomer there; Special Forces are the Green Berets, an Army outfit; the term doesn't include the SEALs) and the intelligence system that supports them. "I do think that just from a broader military strategy perspective, that we can't overstate what Special Forces can do. Special Forces are well designed to deal with very specific targets in difficult terrain and oftentimes can prevent us from making the bigger strategic mistakes of sending forces in, with big footprints and so forth. And so when you're talking about dealing with terrorist networks in failed states, or states that don't have capacity, you can see that as actually being less intrusive, less dangerous, less problematic for the country involved." "Ultimately," the president muses, "none of this stuff works if we're not partnering effectively with other countries."
Partnering with other countries? This non sequitur runs counter to everything Mr. Bowden has revealed. For his book establishes at least one essential reality of the Abbottabad mission: When the stakes were highest and the opportunity ripe, it was necessary for a cadre of superb warriors and their famously self-actualized president to take the capabilities that were bequeathed to them, ignore a "partner" nation's sovereignty, and go it completely and coldly alone.
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